From Moral Issues that Divide Us and Applied Ethics: A Sourcebook
2. An Argument for Drug Legalization -- American Civil Liberties Union
3. An Argument Against Drug Legalization -- Donnie R. Marshall
Jeff is a 35 year old drug addict who lives in his mother’s basement. Though he works on and off
in construction, he is incapable of holding down a full time job, and whatever he does earn
quickly goes into his drug habit, which currently is methamphetamine. His days consist largely
of watching TV, hanging around with other meth addicts and getting high. He’s been in and out
of jail for drug possession, theft, and disorderly conduct, and he’s been in drug rehabilitation
programs 7 times, most of which were part of plea bargain agreements. Since eighth grade he’s
been a regular drug user and has sampled most of what’s out there. His exceptional intelligence
enabled him to coast through high school and two years of college, but as he became more
dependent on drugs he lost interest in even attending class and ultimately dropped out. He was
married once, with two children, but after draining the family income and pawning almost
everything in their apartment to support his habit, his wife left him with the kids and he hasn’t
seen them since. He’s let his appearance go, lost several of his teeth and, now looking almost as
old has his mother, it’s been years since he’s been out on a date. In addition to his meth use, he is
an alcoholic and smokes heavily, and his prospects for living past his 40s are minimal.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about Jeff’s story, and in fact it is representative of
countless people in our society. In this chapter we will examine the moral issues surrounding
drug use, or, more accurately, a subset of drug use specifically involving what are called
―recreational drugs‖. These are psychoactive drugs (that is, drugs with mind-altering effects) that
are taken mainly as a source of pleasure rather than for medical purposes. The most common
ones are typically categorized into the following four groups:
Opiates: drugs formed from the opium poppy and include morphine, codeine, heroin.
Hallucinogenics: drugs that produce experiences that are qualitatively different from
those of ordinary consciousness, and include psilocybe mushrooms, marijuana, LSD.
Depressants: drugs that diminish the activity in the central nervous system and include
alcohol, Methaqualone, Benzodiazepine.
Stimulants: drugs that increase the activity of the central nervous system and include
Cocaine, Caffeine, Nicotine, Amphetamine, Methamphetamine.
The most widely used legal psychoactive drugs are caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Our focus
here, though, will be primarily on the use of illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin,
Psychoactive drugs have been used in society for as far back as history provides us with records.
Many are naturally produced in plants and easily accessed by human populations in the regions
in which they grow. Just as alcohol plays a key function today in social events, psychoactive
drugs from plants have also been incorporated into community celebrations, rites of passage, and religious ceremonies. For better or worse, most societies today that accept or at least tolerate
alcohol are reluctant to view other drugs the same way. Alcohol’s widespread acceptance owes
in part to the fact that the natural fermentation process occurs everywhere around the world,
whereas other psychoactive drugs will grow only in special climates.
It is impossible to discuss the issue of recreational drugs without speaking of the harms
associated with them, most of which we all well know from news stories and popular fiction.
One immediate type of harm is that to the users themselves. While many drugs can be taken in
limited quantities with no ill effects, the cumulative use of many, though, are particularly
harmful. In 2007, 38,000 people in the U.S. died from drug induced causes, including overdose,
heart attack, organ damage, and even malnutrition. Brain damage is also common. In addition to
the immediate health risks of extended drug use, there are also secondary harms, such as sexually
transmitted diseases that result from reduced inhibition and poor precautionary judgment. HIV
and hepatitis C commonly results from injection drug use. As with Jeff, a life of heavy drug
dependency often derails normal human interests in careers, families, and other activities that we
typically consider productive. In addition to harm that drugs cause to the users themselves, there
is also harm caused to others. Perhaps the most tangible harm to society from drug dependency is
the increase in crime that results from users whose drug habit outstrips their legitimate incomes.
Muggings and theft are commonly linked with addiction, and women who ordinarily would
never consider prostitution often compromise their convictions to support their drug habits.
There are the tragic consequences when people under the influence of drugs get behind the wheel
of a car or have their judgments impaired in a job that could put people’s lives at risk, such as
with physicians or building contractors. There is also the harm that drugs cause to the user’s
family: family resources are depleted, children are neglected and even forced by their parents
into prostitution or drug running to boost the family income. Many children of drug-addicted
parents end up homeless.
Yet another harm that results from drugs is that involving the illegal drug trade itself. The
business of dealing in drugs is a particularly dangerous one, and the high murder rate in large
cities owes much to feuding between dealers—disputes over distribution territory, payback for
dishonest negotiation, retaliation for the killing of a gang member. The danger also extends to
members of the community where dealers do their business. Residents are held hostage to the
dangerous drug trade that infiltrates their streets, and pedestrians are often hit with stray gunfire.
Young children are routinely recruited for distribution tasks, and weapons make their way into
schools. Federal and local governments devote billions in tax dollars to fighting the illegal drug
trade, often with minimal success. Prison population is at an all time high, a large percentage of
which is drug related, which, again, burdens taxpayers. Spouses and children of the inmates also
suffer as they face new financial and domestic problems.
Alcohol is an unusual drug with a unique set of harms. Alcoholic beverages have been around
since ancient cultures, in some places for more than 10,000 years. Its nearly universal availability
and acceptance owes in large part to the fact that the alcohol fermentation process occurs
naturally in any geographical location. Contrast that with mind-altering drugs, such as marijuana
and opium, which grow naturally in only select regions. Although alcoholic beverages have been
grandfathered into social acceptance, the harms from alcohol abuse are as severe as those from
illicit drugs, and if alcohol was only first discovered today it would likely be banned as a
dangerous drug. The harms from alcohol abuse are well known, and they cut across all age and
socio-economic groups. A good example is the harm that results from college drinking. In the U.S., nearly 2,000 students die each year from alcohol-related accidents, and another 600,000 are
injured. 700,000 students are victims of assault, 100,000 from sexual assault or rape. Alcohol
abuse in colleges leads to unsafe sex, academic problems, drunk driving, suicide attempts, and
property damage (www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov).
A hallmark of drug use is that it is addictive. The notion of ―addiction‖ is hard to pin down, and
it often varies depending on who you ask. The World Health Organization defines drug addiction
Drug addiction is the state of periodic or chronic intoxication detrimental to the
individual and to society, produced by the repeated consumption of a drug (natural or
synthetic). Its characteristics include (1) an overpowering desire or need (compulsion) to
continue taking the drug and to obtain it by any means (2) a tendency to increase the
dosage, and (3) a psychic (psychological) and sometimes physical dependence on the
effects of the drug.
A standard legal definition of ―drug addict‖ used in U.S. law is this:
The term ―addict‖ means any person who habitually uses any habit-forming narcotic
drugs so as to endanger the public morals, health, safety, or welfare, or who is or has
been so far addicted to the use of such habit-forming narcotic drugs as to have lost the
power of self-control with reference to his addiction. (U.S. Code, 41.201)
A common distinction is drawn between drugs that are physically addictive and those that are
only psychologically addictive. Physically addictive ones are accompanied by severe
physiological withdrawal symptoms, whereas psychologically addictive ones lack such
Society has viewed drug addiction in largely two ways: the moral model and the disease model.
According to the moral model, addiction is ultimately a matter of personal choice, where users
have enough control over their actions to continue or not continue with their addictive behavior.
It may be difficult to stop, but with the right will power it can be accomplished. Failure to do so
is a moral weakness where users know that their actions are wrong but opt to do them anyway.
This is the rationale behind traditional religious views that condemn addictive behaviors as
sinful, particularly drunkenness and gluttony.
By contrast, the disease model of addiction maintains that addiction is no more a matter of
choice than having a mental illness like schizophrenia. Biochemical changes within the brain
take place and have a permanent affect on users’ drives. Simple willpower is not sufficient to
break free of the addiction, and it must be managed in ways similar to how diseases are treated.
Some people are particularly prone to addiction for largely genetic reasons, and are sometimes
described as having addictive personalities. Otherwise normal people, without this genetic
predisposition, still can become addicts when chemical changes within the brain reach a certain
threshold, specifically when the brain’s reward center permanently connects a type of behavior
with a pleasure response. In either case, even if users can be reprogrammed to resist a particular
behavior, the addictive mechanism within the brain is already fixed and they will forever remain
addicts. The disease model of addiction first emerged in the 1940s, and within a few decades it
was embraced by both the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization.
Extreme advocates of the disease model sometimes argue that drug addicts who break the law as
result of their addiction, such as by stealing to support a drug habit, should not be punished for
their conduct, but instead given therapy. They are in essence broken machines that need to be
fixed, not punished. However, many mental health organizations that deal with drug dependency incorporate both the disease and moral models. While there are certainly physiological causes of
addiction that cannot be over looked, there is nevertheless an element of moral responsibility that
users have to control their addiction and to be accountable for the harms that they’ve caused
others through their addiction.
What People Think
While people in the U.S. are reluctant to legalize hard drugs such as heroin, meth and cocaine,
attitudes are more lenient when it comes to marijuana, as reflected in the following surveys
(conducted October, 23-24, 2002, www.pollingreport.com):
"Do you favor or oppose the legalization of marijuana?"
Favor: 34 %
Oppose: 59 %
Not sure: 7 %
"Assuming marijuana is not legalized, do you think people arrested for possession of
small amounts of marijuana should be put in jail, or just have to pay a fine but without
serving any time in jail?"
Put in jail: 19%
Just pay a fine: 72%
Not sure: 3%
"Do you think adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if
their doctor prescribes it or do you think that marijuana should remain illegal even for
Allow medical use: 80%
Illegal even for medical purposes: 17%
Not sure: 3%
"According to statistics, lots of people have tried marijuana at least once. How about you,
have you tried marijuana at least once?"
Not sure: 3%
The issue of drug use has both a moral and legal dimension. On the one hand, even if drug use is
legal, we can ask whether the use of such drugs is immoral. Just because the law permits me to
do something doesn’t mean that I should do it—such as smoking or riding a motorcycle without
a helmet. On the other hand, even if it is immoral to take drugs, we can still ask whether the use
of such drugs should be illegal. The law permits us to do a range of immoral activities, such
lying to others or cheating on one’s spouse. While these are things that we shouldn’t do morally
speaking, at the same time we don’t want our laws telling us how to conduct our private lives.
For the moment, let’s set aside the issue of whether drugs should be illegal and look specifically
at whether drug use is immoral. We’ll consider two lines of thought: one based on the pleasure
that drugs bring to the user, and another based on the duty to avoid harming oneself and others
through drug use.
Drugs and Pleasure: Epicurean and Stoic Arguments
For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the issue of the physical harms that drugs might pose to
users and society at large, and assume that you are in a situation in which you could safely take a drug without the problems of overdose, death, drug wars. When trying to understand the moral
ramifications of drug use in such safe conditions, the first thing we need to recognize is that the
whole purpose of taking recreational drugs is for the pleasure that they produce, and the pursuit
of pleasure comes natural to us. By our very nature we are pleasure seeking creatures, and much
of what motivates is in life is the drive for pleasures of wide variety. There are pleasures from
food, romance, TV, movies, music, art, fashion, literature, travel, sports, games, you name it.
Through these activities our brain chemistry is altered in ways that give us unique experiences of
pleasure, and through this we step out of our normal routines and escape to a new realm. If we
remove pleasures from our lives, then human existence becomes a barren landscape of routine
actions that we perform throughout each day as we plod along from birth until death. The Greek
philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) argued that pleasure is the centerpiece of human life: ―it is
from pleasure that we begin every choice and avoidance, and it is also to pleasure that we return,
using it as the standard by which we judge every good‖ (Letter to Menoeceus). Epicurus
personally recommended that we only pursue pleasures in moderation. Nevertheless, the larger
message of his pleasure-seeking philosophy is that, not only is pursuing pleasures morally
permissible, but it is something that we should do. French philosopher Michel Montaigne (1533–
1592) argued that the pleasures that we get from excessive drinking are so rewarding that we
should ―refuse no occasion nor omit any opportunity of drinking, and always have it in our
minds‖ (Essays, ―Of Drunkenness‖). Recreational drug use is yet one more of the many
pleasures available to us, and if we permit these more normal types of escapism, we should also
permit drug use.
As compelling as this Epicurean argument may seem, a rival school of ancient Greek philosophy
called Stoicism took an opposing position on the pursuit of pleasure. According to Stoics, we
should not actively pursue pleasures of any sort, whether normal ones like food and music, or
more artificial ones like drug use. Rather, we should exercise restraint through our lives so that
we better cope with the unknown and unpredictable tragedies that life invariably gives us.
Indulging in pleasure pampers us too much and gives us unrealistic expectations about what life
has in store for us. For Stoics, this would be as true for drugs as it is for any other source of
pleasure. But there is a fundamental problem with Stoicism in its most extreme form: it’s rather
odd to suggest that we should forego all pleasures to help safeguard us from potential
psychological trauma. It’s comparable to how a survivalist might devote all of his resources to
building and stockpiling a bunker in his back yard, just in case there’s a nuclear war, viral
pandemic, or some similar apocalyptic event. He is sacrificing an otherwise normal life to protect
himself from a prospect that may not be nearly as likely or tragic as he envisions. The extreme
Stoic recommendation seems overly paranoid and would appeal to only a narrow group of loners
who are inclined to lead humorless and somber lives.
But while we might for good reason dismiss the extreme Stoic stance against pleasure, a more
moderate Stoic view is defensible. Many people do overindulge in pleasures of all sorts. A good
example of this is society’s ever-growing credit card debt: desires outstrip financial resources,
and disaster results. Also, the rise in obesity shows how challenging it can be to keep our
culinary desires in check. Restraint is an important counterbalance to our desires, and restraint
often involves learning to walk away from pleasures of every type. To combat credit card debt,
we may need to just throw out the card and use cash only. To combat obesity, we may need to
throw out all unhealthy food in the kitchen, and never buy it again. We thus cure overindulgence
by eliminating its source, and this rationale applies all the more to overindulging in recreational
drug because of their addictive nature. But even when drug use is not addictive, there is something inherently different about drug-
related pleasures that may justify Stoic-like restraint. Normal pleasures are very short term, and,
if the need arises, we can instantly snap out of our pleasure fantasies to face a more urgent
situation. If I’m watching a heart-pounding action movie and then remember that I have a
research paper due later that day, I can immediately turn away from it and devote my full
attention to the project. By contrast, the mind-altering effect of recreational drugs cannot be
turned off at will. We are held hostage to the effects as long as the drug is in our system, and this
compromises our ability to act rationally and responsibly. The need to be in control of our minds
outweighs the pleasure that we get from mind-altering drugs, and thus we should abstain from
What can we conclude from this contest between Epicureans and Stoics regarding recreational
drug use? We can agree with Epicureans that pursuing pleasure is an important component of
life, and, at least in theory, recreational drugs could play a part in that. But, along with Stoics, we
must recognize that there are liabilities associated with all pleasures due to overindulgence. The
situation is made worse with recreational drugs since they have no off switch once we take them.
Let’s then enjoy in moderation all the normal pleasures that life offers us, but recognize that this
one is different because of the grip it has on our cognitive abilities. This doesn’t necessarily
mean that all recreational drug use would be morally wrong, but it does suggest that it requires a
level of responsibility that rises above the capacities of many if not most people.
Harm to Oneself
The above discussion about pleasure and recreational drugs assumed that drug use poses no
physical harm to the user. But that’s certainly not the case. Regular drug use, as we’ve seen, is
associated with a range of harms to the user, such as organ damage, brain damage, and death.
While we all recognize the obligation to avoid harming others, within traditional moral
philosophy there is an additional obligation to avoid harming oneself. German philosopher
Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) describes this duty here:
since the mind is upheld by the body, the powers of the body must therefore be
strengthened and conserved by suitable food and labors, and not injured by intemperance
in eating and drinking, untimely and unnecessary labor, or any other means. Hence one
must avoid gluttony, drunkenness, excess in love, and the like. And since disordered and
violent passions are not only an incentive to disturb society, but also greatly injure the
man himself, one must consequently take pains to restrain one's passions so far as
possible. [The Whole Duty of Man, 1.5]
While Pufendorf’s reference to ―drunkenness‖ in the above concerns alcohol—the mind-altering
drug of choice in his day—it certainly applies to the recreational drugs that we have at our
disposal now. Damage to our bodies through any kind of excess is wrong for the simple reason
that our bodies keep our minds alive. We in essence are engaged in suicide when we
intentionally reduce our life spans through harmful behavior.
While the notion of a moral duty to avoid harming oneself was commonplace a few hundred
years ago, it is less so now. We do of course recognize that some behaviors are better for us than
others, and we all can recite the dos and don’ts of healthy living: we should exercise regularly,
eat nutritious meals, and avoid smoking, excessive drinking, and over eating. We also know that,
for our own safety, we should wear seatbelts, have smoke detectors in our homes, avoid toxic
chemicals, stay away from dangerous parts of town, and see a mental health counselor if we get
depressed. While these are all good things for us to do, it’s a little harder to make the case that
we are being immoral when we neglect them and engage in self-destructive behavior instead. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) expressed the limitations of duties to oneself
here: ―The term duty to oneself, when it means anything more than prudence, means self-respect
or self-development; and for none of these is anyone accountable to his fellow-creatures, because
for none of them is it for the good of mankind that he be held accountable to them‖ (On Liberty,
4). According to Mill, there is no real moral force behind duties to oneself, other than one’s own
conception of self-respect, and that is completely outside the bounds of moral punishment that
others might impose on us.
Our notions of morality today are much more confined to how our behavior impacts other
people. I may indeed have a moral obligation to put smoke detectors in my house, but that would
be primarily for the protection of my family. I may also have a genuine moral obligation to make
healthy lifestyle choices, but, again, that would largely be because of the obligation that I have to
not be a burden on my family. When other people are out of the picture, and would in no way be
harmed by my actions, am I still under a ―moral‖ obligation to avoid self-destructive behavior?
While it may be stupid for me to do such things, it is less clear that it would be immoral. As long
as I’m acting freely and not being manipulated by someone, it’s my choice to do stupid things.
And the value that we place on the freedom to choose may be stronger than the value that we
place on protecting oneself through harm.
Harm to Others
Thus, moral arguments against drug use based purely on harm to oneself are not nearly as
compelling today as they used to be. We’d need to show further that drugs create harm to other
people. And, as Mill argues, when I infringe on the rules necessary for the protection of others,
society ―as the protector of all its members‖ must retaliate on me (ibid). While the moral duty to
avoid harming oneself has weakened over time, the moral duty to avoid harming others is as
strong today as it ever was in the past. When we survey the harm to others that drug use causes,
the harm is considerable. We’ve seen earlier the kinds of damage that drug use can cause to
one’s family and society at large. It is the source of many of society’s worst tragedies. Yes, drugs
are linked with serious harm. But does that make use of drugs morally wrong for those who can
properly control their use of recreational drugs?
Defenders of drug use argue that it is unfair for responsible people to be morally condemned for
the behavior of the irresponsible. With other addictive behaviors—such as hoarding, gaming, or
other compulsive past times—we don’t morally condemn them until they reach the point of
causing harm to others. Similarly, we shouldn’t condemn people for their use of recreational
drugs per se, but only when such use harms others. Thus, it seems wrong to create a moral rule
against all recreational drug use merely because some drug abusers are harming others. If you
use drugs to the point of harming others, then you are morally blameworthy; but if others aren’t
harmed, then the act should be morally permissible. But, from the standpoint of traditional moral
theories, this justification of drug use ignores a critical point about how moral rules operate. The
same moral rules apply to me, even if they weren’t necessarily created for people like me.
Morality is not so much about the potential harm of my actions, but, rather, it is about how much
harm a type of behavior causes to society. Aquinas argues that ―the line of natural rightness is not
drawn to suit the accidental variety of the individual, but the tendencies common to the whole
species‖ (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.122). What is at issue is whether it is a common tendency
within human nature for drug users to become addicts who harm society. It seems that it is. I may
personally defy the odds by being a harmless drug user, but that doesn’t matter if the bulk of
drug users do harm others. That is what traditional moral theorists like Aquinas say on the matter. But in more modern
times, greater stress has been placed on the moral values of individual liberty and autonomy.
While rules are important guidelines, what is morally required of me is to avoid harming others
as I exercise my freedom. I’m morally permitted to take drugs, but I must guard against the
harmful effects of my conduct on others. I’m not absolved of my responsibility if I naively think
that I can resist drug addiction, but then fall into harmful habits that drag down everyone around
me. I’m the bad guy in this case, and appeals to individual liberty will not absolve me of this.
But, if I am one of the lucky ones who can defy the odds regarding drug addiction, then liberty is
my defense. It remains to be seen whether this more modern view of individual liberty is
substantially better than the traditional view of one-size-fits-all moral rules. This same issue
arises again with rationales for and against drug legalization, which we turn to next.
PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES
Let’s set aside the moral issue of drug use and focus now on the public policy issue. Should
some drugs be legalized? What kinds of penalties should be imposed on offenders? How
aggressive should law enforcement be in catching drug users and dealers? The key issue
regarding the legality of drugs concerns finding the right balance between people’s liberty to
make personal choices without governmental interference, and the government’s responsibility
to protect society from harms.
Balancing Freedom and Harm
To better understand how the laws need to balance between freedom and harm regarding drugs,
consider this thought experiment. Imagine that there was a town called ―Buzzville‖ in which
scientists and the local government worked together to eliminate the harmful effects of drug use.
Drug companies developed a new generation of recreational drugs that were not harmful to take,
and were not addictive—at least no more so than craving some comfort food such as chocolate
ice cream. The drugs were also designed so that they’d have no physiological effect when taken
by people under 21 years old, thus completely eliminating the risk that the drug trade could pose
to minors. If drug users found themselves in situations where they needed to sober up quickly,
the mind-altering effects of these drugs could be immediately reversed by swallowing an
antidote pill. Cars, heavy machinery and other potentially dangerous things were equipped with
safety switches that would disable the unit if it detected the presence of drugs in the user’s breath
or sweat. In short, all of the harms of drug use, both to society and the individual, were
completely eliminated. Contrast this, now, with a rival town called ―Overdoseville‖ that has only
one recreational drug, but it’s as addictive and deadly as heroin. Virtually everyone in the town is
addicted to the drug, and society can barely function. Citizens cannot hold down regular jobs,
muggings and theft are commonplace, and life-expectancy is age 35 because of the high rate of
overdose and health-related problems.
On the one hand, if an environment like Buzzville ever did become a reality, there would be no
obvious grounds for legally prohibiting drugs. The freedom to use drugs would outweigh its
harms, since all the harms have been eliminated. On the other hand, if an environment like
Overdoesville existed, the harms from drug use would overwhelmingly outweigh the issue of
freedom, and there would be compelling grounds to legally prohibit drugs. In fact, governments
would be in server violation of its social contract to keep society from collapsing into the state of
nature. Our actual society is somewhere in between Buzzville and Overdoseville in terms of the
freedom-harm balance of drug use. The critical question is how close must we get to Buzzville
before we should legally permit drugs? There is at least some harm that we can tolerate if the
benefits are great enough. A good example of this is our use of automobiles: we enjoy the mobility that our cars give us, but driving is one of the riskiest activities there is. Our society has
judged that the personal benefits of automobile use outweigh their harms. Similar reasoning
might apply with drug use: if the personal benefit that we derive from recreational drug use is
great enough, we may be willing to accept some harms.
Some European countries have substantially relaxed their drug laws, and the Netherlands is a
case in point. While recreational drugs technically remain illegal there, the Dutch have a policy
of non-enforcement with ―soft drugs‖ such as marijuana, and users are typically not prosecuted.
At the same time, though, the Dutch strictly enforce laws prohibiting drug importation-
exportation, and driving under the influence. The U.S., though, is not nearly as lenient as this,
and our current assessment is that the harms of drugs outweigh the importance of our freedom to
choose. Many morally-charged legal issues in the U.S. are left to individual states to resolve for
themselves, such as assisted suicide and capital punishment. With recreational drugs, though, the
Federal government has a strict anti-drug policy that umbrellas over the whole country and
allows very little wiggle room for individual states.
U.S. Drug Laws
All countries have laws that classify and prohibit specific recreational drugs. In the U.S. this is
accomplished with the Controlled Substances Act, first created in 1970, which defines five
categories or ―schedules‖ of drugs. The first schedule is the most restrictive and pertains to drugs
that meet the following three criteria:
The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the
There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical
The remaining four categories differ based on their potential for abuse, their legitimate use in
medical practice, and their addictive nature. The fifth schedule is the least restrictive and
includes drugs that have minimal potential for abuse, accepted medical use, and a low risk of
addiction. A good example is cough medicines with small amounts of codeine. In total, over 200
drugs are listed among the five schedules.
U.S. drug laws are created and administered both by individual states and the federal
government. The federal government’s position on drugs is characterized by what it calls the
―war on drugs,‖ a phrase coined in 1971 by President Richard Nixon who described drug abuse
as "public enemy number one in the United States." The White House Office of National Drug
Control Policy (ONDCP) is responsible for establishing ―policies, priorities, and objectives for
the Nation's drug control program‖ (www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov). They identify possible
points of disruption along the drug supply line, seek out drug dealers, establish treatment
programs for drug users, and have ad campaigns that discourage drug use. One their particularly
controversial ad campaigns during the late 1990s involved secretly funding television networks
for include anti-drug messages within the plot lines of some of the most popular primetime sit-
coms and dramas. The ONDCP would examine the scripts beforehand and suggest changes that
would qualify the network for funding. The ONDCP argued that these embedded messages were
more effective than normal anti-drug public service commercials, but denied that they dictated
any changes in those programs. The ONDCP determines how much of the nation’s drug control
efforts should go towards prevention, or treatment, or enforcement. Liberal administrations
typically emphasize prevention and treatment more than conservative administrations do, as
exemplified in the following statement from the ONDCP during the Obama administration: Preventing drug use before it begins is a cost-effective, common-sense way to build safe
and healthy communities Research on adolescent brain development shows the value of
focusing prevention on young people: those who reach the age of 21 without developing
an addiction are very unlikely to do so afterward. [National Drug Control Strategy, 2010]
The ONDCP also states that, for many addicts, ―brief interventions are not sufficient to promote
recovery,‖ and addiction treatment is effective ―only if it is readily available and of high quality‖
Amidst governmental efforts to reduce and punish drug use, various organizations advocate the
legalization of at least some drugs. A notable example is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
(LEAP), which consists of police officers and government officials whose mission is ―to reduce
the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and
to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ultimately ending drug
prohibition.‖ One of their advertising slogans is ―Drug abuse is bad. The war on drugs is worse.‖
Other organizations support the strategy of harm reduction: recognizing the inevitability of drug
use within society, as a public health policy we should attempt to lessen its harmful effects,
rather than wage a war against it. Some harm reduction recommendations include reducing
criminal penalties for marijuana use, using methadone to treat withdrawal symptoms from opiate
addiction, needle exchange programs, and programs that test the safety of users’ drugs.
Switzerland, one of several European countries with harm reduction initiatives, has a legalized
heroin program whereby registered heroin addicts can go to government clinics twice a day for
injections of the drug, along with required counseling. The program aims to reduce drug crimes,
remove addicts from the street and make them more functioning members of society. The U.S.
government consistently rejects the adoption of these types of harm reduction strategies.
Yet another effort towards drug-leniency in this country is the legalization of marijuana for
medical purposes. Some medical benefits associated with marijuana are alleviation of chronic
pain, alleviation of nausea for chemotherapy patients and others with AIDS, tremor relief for
people with multiple sclerosis, and reduction in epileptic seizures. The U.S. government’s
position on this, though, is twofold. On the one hand, they acknowledge that there is some
proven medical benefit to the chemical THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and this drug is
currently available by prescription in pill or patch form under the brand name ―marinol‖. On the
other hand, though, they maintain that smoking marijuana is not an effective delivery system for
THC since dosage cannot be controlled and marijuana smoke has dangerous secondary
chemicals. Medical marijuana advocacy, they argue, is just a ploy to help legalize marijuana for
recreational use. In spite of the U.S. government’s ban on medical marijuana, in 1996 California
voters passed a state-wide ballot initiative called the ―Compassionate Use Act‖ which allows
patients, with their physician’s approval, to possess or grow small amounts of marijuana for
medical purposes. But the U.S. government did not back down in their stand against medical
marijuana, and twice the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the federal government against
California. In the most recent of these, Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Court stated that the federal
government has a reasonable basis for believing that locally grown medical marijuana could be
channeled into the illegal drug trade. However, one Supreme Court Justice, in a dissenting
opinion, argued that California’s Compassionate Use Act is a justifiable social experiment to test
the viability of medical marijuana within the confines of that particular state, without causing
risk to the rest of the country.
U.S. Alcohol Laws The manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages are restricted in some measure in
every country throughout the world. Some conservative Muslim countries have outright bans.
Those that permit alcoholic beverages typically regulate their sale and distribution, and restrict
consumers based on age, public usage, and motor vehicle operation. The story of alcohol
prohibition in the U.S. is well-known. Under pressure from the temperance movement to reduce
crime, poverty and disease from drinking, 1919 Congress ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic
beverages nationwide. While consumption of alcohol was not banned, per se, the aim of the
legislation was to severely curtail it by making such beverages difficult to obtain. The effect of
the law, though, was catastrophic, with increases in drinking, bootlegging, violent crime, and law
enforcement corruption. In a 1926 Senate committee hearing on the effects of prohibition, one
witness stated the following:
Nothing is and nothing could be more certain, from all the evidence, than that prohibition
is an unqualified failure and a colossal calamity to the Nation. Whatever promotes
drunkenness and drug addiction and all forms of intemperance also promotes crime of
every kind. We have the unimpeachable evidence of our senses that certainly more than
half the crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated throughout the land and sensationally
featured and headlined in the newspapers are crimes which are the result of prohibition.
[Hiram Maxim, Senate Judiciary subcommittee on ―The National Prohibition Law‖ April
Prohibition ended in 1933 with the ratification of the Constitution’s twenty-first amendment,
which repealed the eighteenth amendment. Nevertheless, the twenty-first amendment grants
broad powers to States regarding the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages, and until 1966
Mississippi remained a completely dry state. Today 33 states delegate authority to local counties
or municipalities to ban or restrict the alcohol sale.
Since the end of prohibition, all States follow what is called the three-tiered system of alcohol
distribution: alcohol producers can sell only to licensed alcohol distributors, and, in turn, only the
distributors can sell to licensed retailers. Producers such as breweries cannot sell directly to
grocery retailers or to individual consumers. The system’s purpose is to provide limited access to
alcoholic beverages and thus promote moderation in drinking. It also helps ensure that alcoholic
beverages are not sold to minors, and it provides a simple method for alcohol tax collection. As a
whole, the system helps set the price of alcoholic beverages at the right level: if the price is too
cheap, then people will drink too much, and if too expensive they will bootleg. As one alcohol
distributor puts it, ―The best method of regulating alcohol does not necessarily come at the
greatest convenience or lowest cost for individual consumers. However, it does ensure that
consumers have appropriate access to alcohol at the lowest cost to society and with the least
harm to its members‖ (www.mndistributors.com).
The three-tiered system has recently come under attack from thousands of small wineries and
microbreweries throughout the country who feel that their businesses could be improved by
selling directly to retailers and consumers, skipping entirely the restrictive distribution process.
Ending the system, they argue, would result in increased jobs for the small businesses, and lower
costs and greater variety for consumers. The system benefits no one but the alcohol distributors
who want to retain a monopoly over the country’s supply of alcoholic beverages. Critics of the
three-tiered system have sued many States for discriminatory regulations: such States allow in-
state wineries to distribute directly to retailers, but do not allow this for out-of-state wineries.
These States in essence set aside the three-tiered system for their own wineries, but impose the three-tiered system on out of state ones. What would happen if we eliminated the three-tiered
system that we have today? According to Pamela S. Erickson, a defender of the three-tiered
system, we have only to look at the United Kingdom to see how alcoholic beverage deregulation
has affected them. Over a four-decade period, the U.K. has incrementally deregulated alcohol to
where it is available any time of day during the week in all varieties of bars and stores. It is now
70% more affordable and ―the marketplace is flooded with cheap alcohol that has encouraged
people to drink.‖ The social consequences of this deregulation have been unfortunate:
Hospital admissions for alcohol liver disease and acute intoxication have doubled over
just 10 years. Underage drinking rates are twice what ours are. Problems around bars and
clubs are so severe in London that London has two buses equipped as field hospitals to
take care of people who have been victims of alcohol-fueled violence or alcohol
intoxication every weekend. [Pamela Erickson, U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee
hearing on ―Legal Issues Concerning State Alcohol Regulation,‖ March 18, 2010]
In the U.S., changing the three-tiered system is a multifaceted issue. It puts the interests of small
wine producers against distributors, private industry against governmental regulation, and, most
importantly, profit against public health.
ARGUMENTS PRO AND CONTRA
The Conservative Position
The conservative position on recreational drugs is that their use is both immoral and should
remain illegal. The chief arguments for the conservative position are these.
1. Harm to society. There are serious harms to society from drug use, as we’ve already seen,
including increases in murder, theft and prostitution. It is, in fact, one of the leading sources of
crime in society. A criticism of this argument is that much of the harm associated with
recreational drug use is the result of it being illegal to begin with. If drugs were made legal, the
illegal drug trade and the evils associated with them would disappear, as happened with
organized crime in the U.S. when alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1933. While some of the
harder drugs would have other harms associated with them, social harm from softer drugs would
likely be very minimal.
2. Harm to user’s health. Drugs adversely affect the user’s health, and we have an obligation to
avoid unnecessary harm to our bodies, such as that which is caused by regular drug use. A
criticism of this argument is that harm to oneself is often a byproduct of exercising one’s
freedom, such as with playing dangerous sports or simply driving in a car. While it’s good to
reduce harms to oneself when we can, eliminating all such harms would seriously curtail our
freedom to act as we like and try out different hobbies, careers and lifestyles.
3. Decrease in user’s motivation. Drugs adversely affect the user’s motivation to be a productive
citizen. We have an obligation to ourselves and society to develop our talents and be productive
citizens in some way. But the pleasures of drug use, even with less addictive ones, often eclipse
the ordinary sense of enjoyment and satisfaction that we might get from learning new skills and
creating a better society. A criticism of this argument is that the same rationale applies to other
recreational diversions, such as watching mindless TV sitcoms that waste huge amounts of time
and sap our motivation to do something more useful. We all can’t be obsessively high-energy
and productive people, and there is something to be said for living a relaxed and laidback life, if
that’s what we so choose.
The Liberal Position
The liberal position on recreational drugs is that the less harmful and addictive ones are morally
permissible and should be legalized. Here are the main arguments for that position. 1. Autonomy: drug use should be a matter for individuals to decide for themselves, so long as
their use of drugs does not negatively impact others. In a free society, the presumption is that
individuals should be at liberty to make their own choices, even when their decisions are not
always the smartest or safest ones for themselves. The only restriction should be whether the
individual’s actions cause significant harm to others. The use of recreational drugs is a case in
point. A criticism of this argument is that most recreational drug use does have a serious negative
impact on society. Marijuana and perhaps a few others might be exceptions, but the most
addictive ones result in great harms. Further, addiction to drugs compromises a person ability to
make free choices, and thus undermines autonomy.
2. Pleasure: recreational drugs provide a great source of pleasure to people, and this
counterbalances the harm to themselves. Many of the decisions that we make in life involve
balancing pleasures with potential pains. If the pleasure is great enough, we will accept the risk.
So too with recreational drugs: while users might be at risk of some harm, they may accept this
in exchange for the pleasure benefits. A criticism of this argument is that few peoples’ lives are
completely isolated, and there are almost always family members who are secondary victims to
the harm that drug users bring on themselves. Children are particularly vulnerable to this.
Because of drug use, parents might have less money for their children’s needs and be less
motivated to focus on their children’s wellbeing than their own happiness. Even drug-using
college students with no kids might negatively impact their future careers by squandering their
present educational opportunities, which ultimately affects their future families.
3. Cultural tradition: the use of mind-altering substances has been an important part of human
culture. This is particularly evident with the role that alcohol has played throughout history: it
pacifies us when sad, heightens enjoyment when happy, and is incorporated into many of our
celebrations. While alcohol is the poster-child for the value we place on mind-altering
substances, recreational drugs can and do perform that same function. A criticism of this
argument is that society needs to draw a line somewhere regarding the various mind-altering
substances that it will embrace as acceptable parts of cultural tradition. Heroin and meth, for
example, will never gain acceptance because of how addictive and harmful they are. While other
mind-altering drugs are similar to alcohol in their effects, they nevertheless don’t have a long
history of acceptance, and society appears reluctant to move the line of acceptance beyond
A Moderate Compromise
There’s a famous expression that ―I may not like what you say, but I will defend your right to say
it.‖ To some extent this intuition applies to how we behave as well as what we say. We may not
always like the choices that people make in their lives, but we should acknowledge a person’s
freedom to make those choices. We already grant this when it comes to alcohol use. So why not
with other drugs too? There are good reasons for society to restrict the use of highly addictive
drugs because of the harm they cause to society (independent of the harm that results from the
illegal drug trade itself). If there is any room for compromise, it would be with softer drugs like
marijuana. Even for these, though, full legalization would be too dramatic, and, instead, a first
step might be to replace criminal penalties with civil ones, such as a fine similar to a traffic
offense. Several U.S. cities have already considered taking this approach.
2. AN ARGUMENT FOR DRUG LEGALIZATION
American Civil Liberties Union
Founded in 1917, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has as its mission to "defend and
preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person ... by the Constitution and laws of the United States." The ACLU takes stands on many morally controversial issues and
often enters into legal battles in those areas. Among its positions, the ACLU supports abortion
rights, gay rights and affirmative action. It also opposes capital punishment and government
sponsored religious symbols or activities. On the issue of drug laws, the ACLU maintains that
recreational drug use should be decriminalized – including marijuana, cocaine and heroin. In
the selections below, they argue that the question hinges on the harm that drugs pose to others,
not on the harm that it poses to users themselves. On balance, they maintain, more public harm
is done through criminalization than would occur through a responsible system of
decriminalization. It is costly and ineffective; it creates public health problems, gangsterism, an
explosion in the number of nonviolent prisoners. It also as a devastating effect on African-
American and Latino communities.
AGAINST DRUG PROHIBITION
More and more ordinary people, elected officials, newspaper columnists, economists, doctors,
judges and even the Surgeon General of the United States are concluding that the effects of our
drug control policy are at least as harmful as the effects of drugs themselves.
After decades of criminal prohibition and intensive law enforcement efforts to rid the country of
illegal drugs, violent traffickers still endanger life in our cities, a steady stream of drug offenders
still pours into our jails and prisons, and tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana still cross our
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes criminal prohibition of drugs. Not only is
prohibition a proven failure as a drug control strategy, but it subjects otherwise law-abiding
citizens to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for what they do in private. In trying to enforce
the drug laws, the government violates the fundamental rights of privacy and personal autonomy
that are guaranteed by our Constitution. The ACLU believes that unless they do harm to others,
people should not be punished -- even if they do harm to themselves. There are better ways to
control drug use, ways that will ultimately lead to a healthier, freer and less crime-ridden society.
Currently Illegal Drugs have not Always been Illegal
During the Civil War, morphine (an opium derivative and cousin of heroin) was found to have
pain-killing properties and soon became the main ingredient in several patent medicines. In the
late 19th century, marijuana and cocaine were put to various medicinal uses -- marijuana to treat
migraines, rheumatism and insomnia, and cocaine to treat sinusitis, hay fever and chronic
fatigue. All of these drugs were also used recreationally, and cocaine, in particular, was a
common ingredient in wines and soda pop -- including the popular Coca Cola.
At the turn of the century, many drugs were made illegal when a mood of temperance swept the
nation. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Act, banning opiates and cocaine. Alcohol
prohibition quickly followed, and by 1918 the U.S. was officially a "dry" nation. That did not
mean, however, an end to drug use. It meant that, suddenly, people were arrested and jailed for
doing what they had previously done without government interference. Prohibition also meant
the emergence of a black market, operated by criminals and marked by violence.
In 1933, because of concern over widespread organized crime, police corruption and violence,
the public demanded repeal of alcohol prohibition and the return of regulatory power to the
states. Most states immediately replaced criminal bans with laws regulating the quality, potency
and commercial sale of alcohol; as a result, the harms associated with alcohol prohibition
disappeared. Meanwhile, federal prohibition of heroin and cocaine remained, and with passage
of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937 marijuana was prohibited as well. Federal drug policy has
remained strictly prohibitionist to this day. Decades of Drug Prohibition: A History of Failure
Criminal prohibition, the centerpiece of U.S. drug policy, has failed miserably. Since 1981, tax
dollars to the tune of $150 billion have been spent trying to prevent Columbian cocaine, Burmese
heroin and Jamaican marijuana from penetrating our borders. Yet the evidence is that for every
ton seized, hundreds more get through. Hundreds of thousands of otherwise law abiding people
have been arrested and jailed fo